Don't let the promise of a new Zelda game distract you from everything else the switch has to offer. Here's why you should be just as interested in Arms.
Moekuri does not make a good first impression. At first glance, it looks like a bizarre ultra-Japanese fever dream based around collecting cute anime girls in a world drenched in bright pastel colors. Take a closer look though, and you’ll see that, while it is all that and more, It’s also a fascinating strategy RPG with a lot of hidden depths. If you don’t mind it’s quirky aesthetic and sugar-sweet story, there’s a solid game here just waiting to be discovered.
Getting past that sugar-sweet story might be a challenge for gamers steeped in more macho war games. Our tale opens with Iruse, a perpetually cheery pink haired girl, training with her friend Nika, an equally cheery white-haired girl. We soon learnt that Iruse’s mother vanished years ago, leaving behind only a mysterious, unreadable book named “Nursery Rhyme”. Predictably, an encounter with some cursed monsters reveals that Nursery Rhyme has some kind of magical power, so Iruse sets off on a quest to learn the truth, find her mother, meet a bunch of wacky new friends, and maybe even save the world. It’s all sickeningly happy and cheerful, filled with characters that just want to do good, help people, and learn valuable lessons about friendship. In the world of Moekuri, even the bad guys are good people at heart, and there’s no problem that can’t be solved by sitting down and talking at length about how great it is to have friends. I actually rather enjoyed the story, simple though it was, but this kind of thing may be an acquired taste.
If you want to get to those friendship speeches though, you’re going to have to fight a few battles. Moekuri is, in it’s own words, an “Adorable and Tactical Strategy RPG”. The adorableness oozes from every screenshot, but what about the tactics and strategy? Well strategy in Moekuri comes in two forms: team building and fighting. Teams are built Pokemon-style, with six monsters (all of whom are also anime girls, in case you’d forgotten) venturing into battle alongside Iruse. Building the perfect team is all about balancing different priorities. In addition to the usual stats (attack, defense, type, etc) each of you creatures also has a summoning time, which reflects the number of turns required to bring the monster from your reserves to the field. Choose a bunch of high powered monsters, and you might find yourself surrounded before you’ve managed to call up a single ally, a fatal mistake since losing Iruse results in instant defeat. On the other hand, creatures with low summoning times are often substantially weaker than their slower brethren, so over-reliance on them can cost you dearly in a protracted battle. Picking monsters that complement your play-style is essential if you want to survive.
The biggest step in defining that play-style comes right at the start of the game, when you pick your class. There are over a dozen different classes, including a few special unlock-able ones, each with it’s own set of abilities and preferred strategies. The Assassin, for example, is fast and powerful, but lacking in defence. It works well with fast-summoning monsters that can help it overwhelm unprepared enemies. More defensively oriented players might prefer the durable knight, whose abilities allow her to stop enemies in their tracks and buy valuable time to summon more powerful monsters. Or their are the more creative classes: The necromancer, who can complement her summoned monsters with hordes of expendable undead; the evoker, who can manipulate weather, terrain, and monster types to gain the upper hand in battle; the witch, who specializes in inflicting debilitating status effects on enemy monsters. With so many distinct classes to choose from, you’re sure to find one that suits you, and exploring them all will take dozens of hours of play.
All this is barely scratching the surface of the considerations involved in putting a team together. Monsters have abilities that range from basic (immunity to certain status effects, bonus damage under certain conditions, etc) to game changing (one monster is actually unable to die, re-spawning at full health after each defeat). They also have elemental types which, as well as giving the usual rock-paper-scissors style advantages (fire beats ice, thunder beats water, and so on), provide benefits if multiple of the same type are fielded at once. A team of fire monsters, for example, gains huge bonuses to it’s attack, but is at a substantial disadvantage against water type enemies, while an all ice team gains a better chance to inflict status effects. Add up all these different considerations, and you get a impressive array of different builds and strategies. Setting up the perfect team is a lot of fun, and an experience not to be missed if you’re into these sorts of games.
Once you have your team all set up, you’re ready to get into the action. Battles are fairly straightforward, and reminiscent of classic strategy games like Final Fantasy Tactics. Iruse and the opposing master stand on opposite sides of a square grid, and take turns moving, attacking, and summoning monsters until one of them is defeated. Terrain and weather give bonuses and penalties to different unit types, but the effects are relatively small, so the game mostly comes down to two things: positioning your units, and managing your stamina.
Unit positioning is an important factor in Moekuri, because each unit has a Zone of Control (ZoC) that stops enemies from moving through it. Naturally, monsters vary in the size of their ZoC, with most extending only one square from the unit, while defensively oriented monsters can have ZoCs of as much as three squares. Set up your units properly, and you can keep the enemy away from fragile ranged units or important characters like Iruse, while forcing them to engage your heavy hitting melee fighters. Miscalculate though, and you could find your troops separated by the opponents ZoC, unable to support one another or reach the enemy, a position from which defeat invariably results.
The other important factor in determining victory is Stamina, which units consume to attack, use special abilities, and summon new monsters. While Iruse’s stamina recovers slowly at the start of each turn, monsters have a limited supply, and the only way to recover it is to return them to the reserves, necessitating another time-consuming summoning if you want to bring them back to the fight. Keeping an eye on your stamina reserves is thus an essential skill in longer battles.
All this might sound rather intimidating, and the game could do with a better tutorial, but persevere and you should get the hang of it before too long. Be warned though, this is a challenging game. Determination and persistence should eventually get you through the main story, but you’ll have to keep your wits about you if you want to overcome the post-game content. That said, the game rarely feels unfair. There’s not much randomness, and you’re almost never put in the ludicrously slanted battles often seen in strategy games. When you lose, it’s because you made a mistake or went with a bad strategy, and when you win, it’s because you earned it.
Earning those victories isn’t quite as simple as finding the best strategy and sticking with it though. The enemy takes full advantage of the range of options on offer, so you’ll have to adapt to a new type of challenge in almost every stage. From straightforward brawlers to lightning fast assassins to enemies that can render themselves invincible, you’ll face every type of foe imaginable as you traverse the 25 level campaign. Sadly, the AI is a little too basic to properly pull off some of the more delicate strategies, but it’s usually good enough to avoid too many glaring errors.
Overall, the game-play can only be described as “great”. The system has depth while still being approachable, and the sheer variety of choices is staggering. The battles are intense and strategic without feeling overwhelming, and there’s enough variety to keep you playing for hours. In other words, it’s exactly what a strategy RPG should be.
The aesthetics, on the other hand, are likely to be a matter of personal taste. If you like bright colours and cuteness, you’ll love Moekuri. It has an endless array of the cutest anime monster girls you’ve ever seen, though the quality of the illustrations does vary. The art appears to have been done by multiple different artists, so you have high quality, professional looking artwork alongside pictures some much more amateurish pieces. Still, there are more hits than misses, and even the bad art isn’t really awful, so as long as you aren’t turned off by excessive cuteness, you should be fine. It’s also worth noting that still character portraits and simple sprites are all you’re getting here. Even the terrain is represented by differently coloured tiles on a flat grid. If you’re looking for next gen cut-scenes, you’ll have to look elsewhere. For some, that’s part of the charm, but others might find it a little too primitive. The music should please just about everyone though. It’s pretty generic, and nothing you haven’t heard before if you’ve ever played a Japanese RPG, but it’s fun to listen to, varied, and fits the mood well.
Whatever quibbles you might have with the art or story, you shouldn’t let them get in the way of trying out this surprisingly great game. If you like strategy games and don’t mind getting strange looks from your friends after they find out you own Anime Girl Pokemon Tactics, this is a must buy.
Moekuri was played on PC